Raad Aweisat is planning to travel to Athens, Greece, this August and become the first-ever Palestinian swimmer to represent his people at the Olympics. Though he lives in a war-torn region and trains in a poorly equipped facility, Aweisat is motivated to represent his people and that's all he needs to keep him going in the freezing cold of winter.
Introduced to swimming at the age of four, Raad Aweisat quickly began topping local Palestinian competitions and then moved on to compete in events in Germany, Iran, Kuwait, Morocco and Spain. But the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians almost brought an end to his promising career.
Aweisat was practicing at the YMCA near his neighborhood in Jerusalem when violence broke out in September 2000. The YMCA told Aweisat to either join the Israeli Swimming Federation, which as a Palestinian he did not want to do, or find somewhere else to swim. There was only a 17-meter pool in the area, located in the backyard of several connected homes. Aweisat's father gathered nearby villagers together to lengthen the pool by digging until it reached an acceptable 25 meters.
It is still far from ideal. A corrugated tin roof hangs above the pool. Nylon sheets surround the narrow three-lane pool in these winter months in an attempt to keep the minimal heat from escaping. Those sheets trap the chlorine fumes from the water, leaving a fog hovering above the pool's surface.
The pool is heated only for two-hour swim sessions each day. That costs about $100 per day and it's all Aweisat's father can afford. Other parents chip in to help cover the costs. There is no outside funding.
Yet the optimistic 17-year-old feels that rewards are much sweeter when faced with many obstacles. Still, Aweisat knows if he had better facilities he could become a better swimmer. "With such conditions it's possible to deliver something," he said, "but if we have a better institution, a better pool, better training facilities, then for sure we'll deliver better and get to the required level."
At the Palestinian national swimming competition last August, Raad Aweisat finished the 100-meter butterfly with a time of 58.95 seconds. The qualifying speed for this Olympic event is 58 seconds, but because of the conditions Aweisat has to work under he was given an exemption by the Palestinian Swimming Federation.
Other swimmers at this time of year are working out in heated indoor pools. They are toning their muscles with computer-monitored hydraulic weight machines. The gym where Aweisat works out was constructed from a former stable.
Palestinians gained International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognition in 1993 after the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. A Palestinian team first competed at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. Yet Palestine has sent only a few athletes to the Olympic games.
Hussein Aweisat, Raad's father, feels that exposure from the games may show the world what Palestinian athletes have to work with, especially his son. But even with everything the Aweisat family has gone through to help guide Raad to the Olympics, his father knows this is the only way to do it.
"I hope to go to the Olympiad in Athens," said Mr. Aweisat. "Maybe it's a good way for all the people in the world to see my swimmer and the miserable situation here. You can see the high level and good swimmers in the national team for Palestine. I don't really know, but it's okay, for me; it's okay. This is the best way to go to Athens. No other way, just this."
The other Palestinian athlete expected to compete in Athens this year is 19-year-old middle-distance runner Sana Bakhith.
After the Olympics, swimmer Raad Aweisat's dream is to go to college in the United States and become a surgeon. Right now he finds it hard to escape the world of conflict and fighting that surrounds him, but he does use it as motivation, motivation driving the spirit of one young man who feels that if he does well at the Olympics it will not just be for himself, but for Palestine too.